And it was eight hours of my life that I am never getting back. For those of you who didn’t see my mention of it earlier in the fall, or managed to carefully avoid any advertising for it, Flesh and Bone is a “limited series” on Starz (their fancy way of saying miniseries). It tells the story of wide-eyed Claire Robins’ arrival in New York City as she joins the fictional American Ballet Company, and prepares for her first professional season as a ballerina. The show was created by Moira Walley-Beckett, one of the writers of Breaking Bad, and Center Stage heartthrob Ethan Stiefel was both a consultant and choreographer. His Center Stage rival, Sascha Radetsky, is in the cast as Ross, one of the company’s principal dancers.
An actual ballerina, Sarah Hay, portrays the unfortunate heroine Claire Robins, so luckily the dance sequences are not staged to hide the use of a body double. It’s actually Hay that we are watching dance, along with cast members who have performed with Boston Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Les Grands Ballets in Montreal, and probably many more (but I wasn’t going to Google every dancer who appeared in the show). The dancing in Flesh and Bone though, is probably the best part. The plot and writing that surround the dance sequences were almost overwhelmingly dark, to the point where it was just uncomfortable to watch.
If you want to get a sense of what Flesh and Bone is like, think of every bad dance movie trope you possibly can, and roll them into one eight-part miniseries. There are dancers with eating disorders, a company manager who embezzles, an egotistical artistic director, an aging prima ballerina who is doing everything she can to remain on top, and the girl who secretly spends her nights working at a strip club because it’s exciting and the Russian mobster who runs it has a soft spot in his heart for ballerinas (if not for the trafficked young girls we see working on his yacht). This isn’t even a comprehensive list of all of the tropes used (did I mention that out-of-control artistic director is also gay, and yet shouts slurs at his gay dancers in rehearsals?). So few characters in this show remain sympathetic, as even seemingly Bambi-like Claire is revealed to have a dark secret pretty quickly. The accompanist Pasha is one of the few characters who might remain likeable, but even he makes blatantly racist comments in one episode.
Flesh and Bone is trying so hard to be dark and edgy that it ends up losing what it should have actually been about: the difficulties of living and working in the competitive New York ballet world. It could have been a deep (and even feminist) look at an art form that requires so much from its performers, and instead it lost sight of the original subject matter. What is left feels like a hollow set of sad caricatures, held up with too many side plots, and absurd, over-the-top writing. If I hadn’t been so determined to find out just how bad this show could get, there is no way I would have watched all the way to end. If you are someone looking for a show about dance that you would actually enjoy, check out the Australian Dance Academy, the short-lived Bunheads, or classic movies like Flashdance or Center Stage. Do not watch Flesh and Bone unless you want to spend eight hours of your life watching all sorts of terrible people do terrible things, while occasionally doing some beautiful ballet. Maybe, if your need for more Sascha Radetsky is great enough, consider skipping through the show to find his dance scenes. But please, do not subject yourself to all of Flesh and Bone. You have been warned.